Remembering a former vice president of the United States calls to mind his wife as well, and what she did for the arts.
When I heard the sad news last week that Walter Mondale had died, I certainly got the sense of an era passing away with him. Mondale had been at the heart of American politics for several years back in the 1960s through the 1980’s and had, after retirement, become an elder statesman and muse to those who shared his progressive vision.
The news also made me reflect on his wife. Joan Mondale died in 2014 and she was a figure not only in Washington society, but in the art world as well.
After she graduated from college in 1952 with a bachelors in history and a minor in art, she worked at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and then at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. She met and married Walter Mondale in 1955, and when the couple moved to Washington nine years later, she took a job giving guided tours at the National Gallery of Art.
In 1972, she wrote a book aimed at young people entitled Politics in Art examining how art can be a vehicle for political commentary.
When Walter Mondale was elected Vice President under Jimmy Carter, Joan became the administration’s most prominent champion of the arts. The person that Carter appointed to lead the National Endowment for the Arts was a longtime congressional aide named Livingston Biddle and, outside of helping write the legislation that created the NEA a dozen years earlier, he was widely regarded as a political, instead of an artistic, appointment.
This gave Joan Mondale a chance to step up. What Lady Bird Johnson had been for highway beautification efforts, Joan Mondale became for art. Under her direction the Vice President’s house became a show place for American art (although not open to the public) and each year she selected a new slate of paintings by renowned artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Edward Hopper to decorate its walls. She quickly became known around town as “Joan of Art.” In 1977, the New York Times called her the “Patron Saint of the arts establishment.” The next year President Carter appointed her to be the honorary head of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.
She often traveled to New York City and met with dancers and painters and other artists and talked about the ways in which federal attention, mostly funding, could help them. In October, 1977 at the Brooklyn Museum, she chaired a meeting with 25 women artists and art historians—among the painters she met with were Alice Neel and Lee Krasner.
When Walter Mondale ran for president in 1984, she announced that her arts activism would continue if she became First Lady, but he lost to Reagan that year in a landslide. For a few years in the 1990s he served as Ambassador to Japan, but lived out his career rather quietly. Historically speaking, Walter Mondale defined a new model for the Vice President in terms of activism within an administration. His wife defined how much a Vice President’s wife could do for the arts.